Edited by Brett Buchanan. This is the final part of a three part series (make sure to read part 1 and part 2) remembering Chris Cornell and Soundgarden in England and Europe during the mid 1990’s to mark the one year anniversary of his death.
After Kurt Cobain died everything seemed to change, and in the British press it was clear that they had had enough of the doom and gloom that they perceived was coming out of Seattle, including Soundgarden. Grunge was dead to them.
First it was Kerrang, a magazine that had championed the band since the early 90’s were now calling their return to England boring. Soundgarden, after pulling out of the 1994 Reading Festival at the eleventh hour, came back to play at the 1995 edition- their only UK date that year. Kerrang went on to call the band’s performance lethargic and static. It was a view not held by any fans that day that witnessed a powerful set that ended with a 10-minute cover of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
When Soundgarden returned the following year with their new album Down on the Upside, the knives were out. Pearl Jam were able to avoid the same level of criticism because their release that year the highly underrated No Code, with Eddie Vedder and company still refusing to do videos and little to no marketing, their faces weren’t as visible in the media. But for Soundgarden it was the complete opposite, it was a given that they would release videos and do interviews to promote their new album.
The alternative press like NME made Kerrang’s views on the band seem relatively tame. This was a magazine that when “Fell On Black Days” was released, the review was whittled down to just four words: ‘you must be joking.’ NME were doing their best to promote the Brit Pop movement including Oasis and Blur, and Soundgarden’s hard rocking songs were the last thing they wanted to be covering. Fast forward a couple of years later, and when “Burden In My Hand” was released NME stooped to a new low. They didn’t want the American invasion of rock bands in England to continue, perhaps after Nirvana imploded there was a feeling of being let down, and Soundgarden became the British media’s scapegoats. So when Chris Cornell screamed out the brilliant lyric from “Burden In My Hand”- I shot my love today, the NME critic questioned if Cornell had actually said I shot my load today. It was school boy tongue in cheek humor, but to anyone who was following Soundgarden’s music at the time, it seemed bullish, as if the press wanted to write off the band’s efforts before they had even given them a chance. Note as the years went on and Soundgarden reformed in 2010, NME and Kerrang were back to loving and supporting the band.
In September 1996, Soundgarden would undertake what would end up being their last tour of England before breaking up in 1997. One of the final shows was at London’s Brixton Academy, a venue held very dear historically to the band, and this show was one of the best Soundgarden would perform at the legendary venue. One would have to believe that Chris Cornell read some of what the British press were saying about the band’s performance at the Reading Festival the year before. So Cornell rewound back to the early 90’s, playing one third of the gig without his guitar, manically running around the stage, grabbing the microphone, tossing the microphone stand up in the air, and throwing the microphone into the crowd. He rose like a phoenix that night, he was in everybody’s face, like he had something to prove.
Opening up with “Spoonman,” the venue went from a quiet hush and blackened out, to an array of lights. Seven songs were played from Down on the Upside, and “Black Hole Sun” gathered attention when the lights faded to black. Cornell approached the edge of the stage, with a guitar and a single solo spotlight on him. This version without other band members was new to the crowd, and performance was haunting. Soundgarden finished the night with the song that really launched them into English fans’ hearts- “Jesus Christ Pose.” The show was a stunning example of what the band could still achieve when everything clicked, even if by now there were internal pressures and the game was up.
By the following spring Soundgarden announced their break up, and it didn’t feel like a shock. Despite the great shows, the raw chemistry had disappeared from the band, that same connection that had made them the worthy successors to the likes of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. There was not an outpouring of grief when the band called it quits because there was always a feeling that they would play again together.
13 years later, the band were back after regrouping in 2009 backstage at a Pearl Jam show. The music industry had vastly changed with the evolution of the internet, and the pressures were not the same. They realized that there was no need to return to the record, tour, record cycle, that chain had been broken. And that is what the band did things their own way, they lightly tested the waters and jumped back in, but there was no need to go freestyle, everything could be done on their terms at their pace. This new method of approaching the music business was highlighted when the band recorded their new studio album King Animal without having a record deal. Cornell commented that it felt it was like when the band had first started out, referencing the fact they had no label deal.
Soundgarden would go onto play worldwide tours, and for many fans this was the first chance to see the legendary Soundgarden live. The future looked bright for the band, but a darkness weaved throughout their music and intertwined into Cornell’s lyrics remained, and on the night of May 17, 2017 the band’s final curtain came down in Detroit after Chris Cornell returned to his hotel room and died by suicide. The shock was immense, and one year on it still is. But it’s worth remembering the good times, because there was a lifetime of them.
Upon hearing the death of Cornell, Josh Bruer, a fan from New York, was interviewed on television. He had been a fan of the band for almost 30 years, and the reporter asked him what he would do. He glanced at her, looked into the camera and said, “I’m going to go home, turn the volume up to 10 and blast out ‘Room A Thousand Miles Wide.'” the reporter gave Josh a double take, clearly not knowing this was a Soundgarden song. Josh then said, “And after that I’m going to have Big Dumb Sex!” The joke was lost on the mainstream media, but it’s something that Chris Cornell most certainly would have got a huge laugh out of. He is missed, and always will be, but his light will never go out in the Superunknown.